The events and people Napoli, Brooklyn are loosely inspired by family history playwright Meghan Kennedy learned from her mother. Like Francesca in the play, Kennedy’s mother was the youngest daughter of Italian immigrants in Brooklyn. In drawing upon her ancestry for inspiration, Kennedy stands on the shoulders of three giants of the American theatre: Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, all of whom mined their own backgrounds to create their most memorable plays.
The Tyrones of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, seen last season at Roundabout, were based closely on O’Neill’s parents, James and Ella, and older brother, James Jr.. The Wingfields of Williams’s most autobiographical play, The Glass Menagerie, were inspired by Williams’s mother Edwina and sister Laura, while his father Cornelius looms heavily as the absent father. Both O’Neill and Williams inserted dramatized versions of themselves into their plays, through the characters of Edmund and Tom (which was also Williams’s real name).
Miller’s iconic Willy Loman of Death of Salesman was inspired by the playwright’s uncle Manny Newman, a salesman who suffered anxiety and despair and committed suicide. Miller’s representative in the play is not one the Loman sons, but nephew Bernard, a nerdy teenager who surpasses Willy’s sons in his achievements. Miller’s 1968 play The Price (revived this season by Roundabout) has even deeper roots in Miller’s past. Like Miller’s brother Kermit, Victor Franz drops out of college to support his parents, who are hurt by the Depression. Meanwhile, older brother Walter resembles Arthur, who left the family to put himself through college and went on to achieve greater success, along with great respect from the parents he left behind.
Dramatizing one’s past can allow a writer to work through difficult memories. The fallout of O’Neill’s tortured family relationships, along with his mother’s drug addiction, weighed heavily on his life. He described his own suffering in a letter to a psychoanalyst, 15 years before he wrote Long Day’s Journey. He dedicated the play to his wife Carlotta, thanking her for “the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play.”
Gore Vidal, a fellow writer and loyal friend, said that Williams “could not possess his own life until he had written about it.” His mother and sister continued to haunt his work. One of his darkest plays, Suddenly Last Summer, emerged from the guilt Williams felt when his mother allowed Rose to be lobotomized—a futile attempt to cure her mental illness. But unlike Tom Wingfield, who abandons his family at the end of the play, Williams continued to take care of his mother and sister.
Miller denied that his work was autobiographical. Still, he often dealt with the lasting impact of the Great Depression on the individual American psyche, an effect he experienced personally. Miller was the son of a well-to-do family who lost their fortunes in the stock market crash and lived in reduced circumstances during the Depression. In The Price, he drew upon personal memories of his family’s financial struggles. Although he asserted that Victor and Walter do not represent his brother and himself, Miller acknowledged that “the magnetic underlying situation (of their relationship) was deep in my bones.” Critic Martin Gottfried proposes that The Price could be read as “Miller’s attempt to justify his life choices.” In a review of Roundabout’s 2017 production, Jesse Green proposes that aspects of Miller can be found both in Victor’s disgust of materialism and in Walter’s “silk-stocking (or camel-hair) problems.”
While tapping into a situation deep in his bones, Miller also combined characters and invented situations. Plays and autobiographies are different literary genres that fulfill different purposes, and both Miller and Williams wrote actual autobiographies (Timebends and Memoirs, respectively.) Playwrights must enhance conflict, tension, and revelation in order to keep audiences enthralled.
In dramatizing real events, O’Neill played freely with chronology—compressing incidents that occurred over months and years into the one long day in which his play is set. Williams made a significant change by removing the Wingfield father from the play. (His own father Cornelius lived with the family while they were in St. Louis.) The absent father raised the stakes on Laura’s dependency and Amanda’s desperation to provide for her children’s future. Literary critic Gilbert Debusscher proposes the term “autofictional” to look at Menagerie as “the result of a conflation of real life and fantasy, the poetic (re)arrangement of fact within fiction, the imaginative fictionalization of autobiography.”
Typically, autobiography centers around the author, with other people moving in and out of the narrative in relation to the central subject. The great family dramas, on the contrary, represent a group of people, all of whom have stakes in the action. Kennedy’s portrait of the Muscolino family is proof positive that no matter how a playwright to chooses to work their family’s past, the ability to find compassion for one’s relatives is essential to creating characters we care about.
THREE SISTERS AS ARCHETYPE
The three sisters at the center of Napoli, Brooklyn—Tina, Vita, and Francesca— exhibit great love and loyalty, and they protect each other in face of the violence, yet each sister pursues a unique paths towards fulfillment. Kennedy’s characters recall an archetype of “three sisters” that runs deep throughout mythology, folklore, and dramatic literature.
The Horai goddesses, Eunomia, Eiriene, and Dike are sisters who preside over the seasons, nature, and the movement of time; they represent the conditions required for prosperous farming. Their sisters, the Moraie, are also known as the Three Fates and represent the force of destiny over human life. At a man’s birth, they appear spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of his life. Another triad of sister goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, compete in a beauty contest for a golden apple that starts the Trojan War.
SHAKESPEARE: KING LEAR
Lear’s contest to his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, to declare their love for him draws on a widely known folktale type, the “love like salt” story. Here, a misunderstood daughter is cast out when she cannot adequately articulate her love. Freud proposed that the youngest sister often represents hidden virtues that are not easily seen, while the older sisters represent the deceptions of beauty and flattery. The tragedy shows the great costs of such misunderstanding.
ANTON CHEKHOV: THE THREE SISTERS
Chekhov told Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dachenko, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre: “I have a subject: three sisters. But I am not going to start working on the play until I finish the tales that are on my conscience.” His creations, Olga, Masha, and Irina Prozoroff, are the opposite of the Fates, exercising no control over anyone’s destiny. Each sister represents a different attitude towards time. The eldest, Olga, speaks largely of the past; youngest Irina fixates on the future; middle sister Masha acts in the present moment with little regard for the consequences.
WENDY WASSERSTEIN: THE SISTERS ROSENWEIG
Wasserstein’s 1992 comedy paid homage to Chekhov in its portrayal of three middle-aged, Jewish sisters, Sara, Pfeni, and Goregous. Wasserstein employed the triad of sisters to explore three different approaches to one’s Jewish identity, and unlike her earlier work, here she presented the possibility of a successful middle-aged woman who makes her own choices but does not end up alone.
Napoli, Brooklyn begins performances at the Laura Pels Theatre on June 8. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2016-2017 Season, Napoli Brooklyn, Upstage